Read more about how a piece of chocolate sparked a research study that could help overcome the issue of obesity.
With the endless amount of Movement Control Orders leading to a lack of physical outdoor activities and an increase in food intake among Malaysians, it’s not surprising that our nation’s obesity rate is increasing at an alarming pace. Even before the pandemic, Malaysia has been tipping the scale with the highest obesity prevalence in Southeast Asia — but is this really that surprising?
We often pride ourselves for our glorious food — whether it’s a bowl of delicious laksa, nasi lemak, or even roti canai. So the question is, can a foodie nation really find a solution in overcoming obesity?
Senior Lecturer and Programme Director of the Bachelor of Science (Hons.) Culinology, Dr. Chong Li Choo shares how a chocolate bar — Aero chocolate to be exact, sparked her research in modifying our local food matrices that could help in weight management problems.
Q: Tell us more about this revolutionary research.
A: I’m currently researching a new approach in redesigning food which involves technology modifying the food or beverage matrix and structure. This is to increase the perception of satiety and satiation, basically the satisfied feeling of being full and eventually having more appetite control, when consuming a smaller portion of food.
Actually, there are approaches available to improve satiation but more often than not it’s perceived as unsatisfactory because it compromises the quality of the modified food. This may be one of the reasons why obesity issues in Asia, particularly Malaysia, are still high.
In line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly on ensuring healthy lives and well-being (Goal 3) and sustainable consumption and production (Goal 12), I’m looking at how we can redesign food matrices but still maintain the original taste, mouthfeel, and even nutritional benefits of them. Then, we’d be able to better measure and control our appetite by regulating our energy and food intake.
Q: What inspired the idea for this research?
A: It all came from a bar of chocolate — Aero chocolate, when I visited the UK in early 2017.
The Aero chocolate is aerated and contains a bubbly structure inside. Although you’d enjoy the original taste of the chocolate, you’re possibly consuming few calories than your conventional chocolate bar that's compact and has more content. The other thing that sparked my idea was cheese foam on bubble tea. When this trend started, you’d see everyone lining up to buy it. My first thoughts were, “It’s so fattening.” But actually, if half the cup is filled with foam or air, it may result in you consuming lesser content leading to fewer calories yet still feeling satisfied.
This sparked my idea that if you’re able to change the food and beverage texture or matrix, it could carry the same taste but with fewer calories. Contextualising it, the majority of Malaysians love food with gravy — no matter the cuisine, but this contributes to a lot of calories.
So I thought about how technology could help break down fat globules size in food, while still maintaining the same recipe, to help people achieve the sensation of feeling full faster which results in you eating less. Currently, my research includes staple foods including traditional ones like gravies that usually go with rice and beverages like teh tarik.
Q: What are some of the milestones you’ve achieved or wish to achieve for this research?
A: We’ve successfully published a few articles proving that this research works. I’m really proud of the recognition received for the creative approach in solving overweight and obesity issues, especially since it focuses on Asian food and cuisine. I’ve even gotten invitations and opportunities to share my research ideas in many conferences locally and overseas — specifically Singapore and Korea.
But more so, it’s the meaningful outcomes from the research in improving the quality of food while contributing to commercial values. I do hope that it’ll be applied in the current food industries, especially on a larger scale, so that they’re made accessible to more people.
Hopefully developing a healthier version of authentic Asian food without changing the original taste and flavour would continue to change the perception of healthier food and create that demand in the market. Then, we can look into finding a balance between producing and making it affordable and available for the masses.
One of the other ways to save cost is to make use of the local agriculture products. Malaysia is well-endowed with natural agriculture resources but we’re not taking enough advantage of what we have. In fact, I’m also researching on utilising local and underutilised agriculture ingredients, including by-products and food waste, as the main ingredients in developing these healthy food products. This has been one of my passions in food product development.
Q: Talking about passion, what led you into this career as a food scientist and technologist?
A: When I was young, I loved instant noodles to the point where I told my parents that I want to join the food development field so that I can develop a healthy version.
While I was doing my postgraduate, my supervisor encouraged me to compete in various food product development competitions, roadshows, and exhibitions, as well as joining consultation and community projects that promote local agricultural products. Fun fact, my research focus was on local plantains or green bananas (Musa acuminata × Musa balbisiana)!
These experiences made me see the great potential in working for the industry under the product development area focusing on local underutilised crop.
After graduating with my PhD though, I took the opportunity to work as an education counsellor to build my communication skills before joining the industry. While I was an education counsellor, I also developed teaching material for short courses for the industry.
Surprisingly, I did well despite it being totally different from my field of study and opened my eyes to see the gaps between education and industry needs.
One day, I received a call from Taylor’s about a newly-launched Culinology programme about food product development. To me, that was the wake-up call to head back into that line. Fast forward 10 years later and I’m still here on this exciting journey teaching and researching my passion — healthy food product development.
Q: Wow! How does it feel knowing that your PhD research product is out there being commercialised?
A: I actually didn’t know it got commercialised! One day, a vegetarian restaurant owner requested for me to meet one of their suppliers who were having problems in the application of their products using plantain flour and were seeking advice but as they were explaining it to me, I thought whatever they said sounded very familiar.
At one point, they said that this product was researched at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and I told them that I was one of the researchers working on this. We were all so excited and that lunch appointment turned into me advising how to sell the product by explaining the physicochemical properties of the plantain flour.
This happened on my birthday and was honestly the best birthday gift I’ve ever received — knowing that the product you researched is already commercialised.
Q: I heard that you received the 2020 President’s Award from the Research Chefs Association of America (RCA)! How did you feel when you got the news?
A: I never expected to receive it. I even went into the call unknowingly! I was invited by my colleague to join the President's opening remark, at 2am local time.
When the award was mentioned, it was a very heartwarming experience that was filled with excitement. I couldn’t go back to sleep when it was over.
I’m really honoured to receive this recognition because it shows how much the Taylor’s Culinology programme has grown and contributed to the area of food product development. I also owe the honour to all the experiences by my PhD supervisor which really build me up.
I remember a lot of people saying that what we’re doing is just masak-masak but she never gave in to these negative comments. She’d say that as long as we know what we’re doing, that’s good enough.
That was more than 10 years ago when healthy food product development using local ingredients wasn’t very recognised so we’ve come very far in making this field known — I’m still very proud of my Green Banana noodles!
Q: What’s the future of food innovation and how can research help with that?
A: I think we’ll be focusing a lot on plant-based food or meals. There’ll be lots of research conducted in Malaysia, or even in Asia, to incorporate local agricultural produce as a source for these meals since the sustainability of ingredients will greatly impact the cost of production.
We’ll also require more support by local SMEs for collaboration or joint research, in terms of technology, to move towards the industry revolution 4.0. When this is more stable, we’d probably move towards customisable nutrition for different groups of people — whether by age group or for health-specific purposes.
Q: Finally, any advice for researchers in food product development?
A: As researchers, we’d need to think ahead for future trends, not only on what’s happening now, and find sustainable solutions. In food development, we need to implement a cross-disciplinary approach by working with those from different departments and getting ready to incorporate AI technology in food product innovation and development which is the future of the food industry.
Going beyond that, we need to understand the importance of our research application. Only when our research outcome is applied in the food industry and implemented at a large scale, then can our research benefit everyone.
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